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Rotator Cuff Tears, Injuries and Treatments

What is a rotator cuff?

The rotator cuff of the shoulder is made up of four muscles whose tendons come together to form a covering around the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) and top of the shoulder. Together with the joint capsule, ligaments and shoulder labrum, the rotator cuff muscles are important, dynamic stabilizers and movers of the shoulder joint. As the name implies, the rotator cuff functions to allow you to rotate your shoulder and lift your arm.

Image showing rotator cuff anatomy, labeled clockwise to identify: rotator cuff, coracoacromial ligament, joint capsule (of the shoulder), biceps tendon
Diagram of the shoulder, including the location of the rotator cuff

What are common rotator cuff injuries?

Rotator cuff tendonitis (inflammation) and rotator cuff tears are common conditions in active people.

Both conditions are usually caused by a prolonged period of repetitive stress (and the tendonitis condition itself may, over time, lead to an eventual tear). This type of stress is usually associated with overhead work-related activities or athletics such as tennis or throwing sports like baseball, cricket or jai alai. However, the rotator cuff may also be acutely injured in trauma involving a fall on the arm and shoulder or from heavy lifting. (It is common among weightlifters.)

A dislocated shoulder injury may also cause a torn rotator cuff.

What are the symptoms of a torn rotator cuff?

Symptoms of a rotator tear or of rotator cuff tendonitis can include:

  • Pain in the front and/or down the outside of the shoulder
  • Weakness
  • Stiffness

How do doctors diagnose rotator cuff problems?

Diagnosis of a rotator cuff injury is made through a careful review of your medical history and a physical exam. This is because there are other conditions which can cause similar symptoms, such as a compressed nerve in the neck (also called a "pinched nerve") or shoulder arthritis.

How are rotator cuff injuries treated?

Treatments for rotator cuff tendonitis

All of the above treatments are usually followed by supervised physical therapy to regain shoulder motion and strength.

Treatments for a torn rotator cuff

A partial or complete tear of the rotator cuff tendon is generally repaired by arthroscopic surgery. Open surgery (using a larger incision) may be necessary for large, complicated full tears of the rotator cuff.

Get more detailed information on rotator cuff injuries and treatments from the articles and other content below, or select Treating Physicians to find the best sports medicine doctor or surgeon at HSS for your particular condition and insurance.

Explore rotator cuff anatomy

Image of the rotator cuff anatomy

Explore a full rotator cuff tear

Image of the rotator cuff anatomy - fully torn rotator cuff and rotator cuff surgery

Explore a partial rotator cuff tear

Image of rotator cuff anatomy - partially torn rotator cuff and surgery


Articles about preventing rotator cuff injuries

Get information on exercises and techniques to help you prevent injuries or tears in your rotator cuff.

Articles about treatments for rotator cuff injuries

Find articles and videos on surgical and nonsurgical treatments for rotator cuff injuries.

Rotator cuff injury articles for healthcare professionals

Get information on exercises and techniques to help you prevent injuries or tears in your rotator cuff.

Read articles about other shoulder injuries and conditions that may affect the rotator cuff.

Back in the Game patient stories

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